Satire History

Satire's beginnings, poetry and performance

Pinning down a "beginning" to satire is not a simple exercise. Undoubtedly, satire existed well before it was formalised. Both the Greeks and Romans formalised the use of satire in one form or another. Roman satire tended to be presented as poetry (although often would be worked into other performance art) whilst Greek satire would be presented in plays and performances.

Greek Satire

One of the earliest Greek records of satire can be traced to around 500 B.C. Early Greek satires ("Satyrs" or "Satyric dramas") were in essence comedy plays, usually fairly bawdy, and often involved men dressed as Satyrs (clearly the root of the word Satyric). Satyrs were mythological creatures with the upper half of a man and the bottom half of a goat or horse. "Satyr" was one of three forms of Athenian drama, nestling comfortably as a new genre alongside tragedy and comedy. Satyr was quickly developed between the writers Pratinas, Aristeas, and Aeschylus. These new "Satyrs" did not begin life as fully developed features - they were instead used as interval pieces to relieve the seriousness of tragic plays. These comic pieces, counterpointing and parodying the tragedy, became extremely popular devices and led to the extension of the form.

There is only one existing Greek Satyr play written by Euripides and called Cyclops. However, many of the common elements in satire can be seen in the works of Greek comedy plays by Sophocles, for which see The Wasps or The Clouds.

Roman Satire

Although the word for Satyr appears to come from the greek term, the noun "Satire" comes from the Roman noun "satura", or "mixture". Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) is generally accepted to be one of the first great Roman satirists, from 65 B.C. Horace was a Roman poet of great stature who wrote in a technical and considered way. It is generally agreed that it is the Roman structure of writing Satire that has become the model for writing satire in the modern ages. Roman satire quickly split into two individual forms: that which exists merely to poke amiable fun of its subject, and that which indignantly sets out to humiliate and lambast its subject. Horace generally wrote in a style that matches the former, and he wrote two books of poetry called "Satires".